Tag Archives: planning a new garden

Starting with a paper plan

Mark has been laughing at me and calling me Gertrude. This is a reference to Gertrude Jekyll so I will take it as a compliment. It is all on account of my working on a planting plan. On graph paper, with coloured pencils.

The Oudolf rivers at RHS Wisley in the UK

This is a new exercise for me, but then so is planning out the plantings for a new garden that is currently a blank canvas. Added to that, the style of planting is different for us too and I need to know how many plants I am going to have to source from elsewhere if I want to get it planted up next autumn. This is the court garden where we eventually – and reluctantly – ruled out initial plans for a meadow-style garden. Practical considerations headed us instead to the idea of an immersive experience of walking through tall grasses with just a few tall flowers. Rivers of grasses, I said. In my mind’s eye, I saw the Oudolf rivers of planting in his twin borders at Wisley – a planting that we have loved and that has proven remarkably stable without huge maintenance demands for over fifteen years now, I think. But with taller plants, many more grasses, with wandering paths not a wide central path and of course we are working on flat ground without the view from above that Wisley has. So not at all like the Oudolf borders in fact, bar the idea of rivers of plants flowing diagonally across the whole space.

Learning from the mistakes of version one

Take one was to draw it up on graph paper and put in the central paths, which I did as a two metre wide figure of eight. I then laid out some squares of colour in diagonal lines running across the space. And I could see immediately that I was instinctively drawing a plan that was gardening in stripes. Child-like design.

Mark has a better eye than I have when it comes to design. He pointed out three things. The first was that Oudolf’s rivers were wide bands, each containing about five different plants, not single rows in stripes. It seemed so obvious when he said that. Next, he commented that he envisaged waves not rivers and he thought the paths should also be informal and meandering, not a formal shape. I knew he was right.

Thirdly and most importantly, he observed that designing a garden on graph paper gives a bird’s eye view, not the ground level view that is what will be experienced. That is the critical take away point from this and, I think, the reason why amateurs (and even some professionals) get it wrong and end up with a garden that, well, always looks like a graph paper garden, best viewed from above. There is a part of the process that requires the ability to translate the bird’s eye view on paper to the actual experience at human eye level on the ground. I assume professional training teaches you how to do this but it is not always achieved. We watched coverage of a major new garden on UK television where the glory of the design could only be shown by putting a drone up and getting the aerial view. It is what I think is wrong with the new garden installation at Pukeiti which they call Misty Knoll but that is referred to by others as the twin bomb craters. I am sure it looked better on paper than in real life.

Posted without comment. The Misty Knoll garden installation at Pukeiti Gardens

We went outside to look at the court garden space yet again, and I started afresh. Waves, not rivers. Waves to create an immersive experience. I measured the space with a tape measure, not by pacing it out. I also measured the area each plant needs in order to stand in its own space when mature because we don’t want the herbaceous border look where the plants knit together. Neither do we want spacings that are so wide that it looks as if we were too mean to buy enough plants to fill it. Each 5×5 square on the paper represents a square metre.

We are not going to be planting until autumn, but at least I will know this week how many plants I need to locate. We have most of them here already to work with, but I will need to buy some extras in. The foundation plantings are to be in six or seven grasses. The uniformity of filling the whole space in just one cultivar is not for us.

Looking down from above on the rockery in front of our house

Because there is so little to show so far on that new garden, I give you the bird’s eye view and the ground level view of our rockery yesterday. Because we have a two storied house, we get an elevated view of some areas of the garden. And looking down on the rockery from above shows the pure 1950s design of this garden feature. Shapes and design, not detail so it is the big picture look.

At ground level, the construction of the island rockery beds varies from ankle height to knee height to thigh height – sometimes all in the same island bed. The paths have also been lowered which accentuates the garden elevations. Truth be told, the lowering of the paths was probably in part to get soil to fill the raised beds but it is a detail that is less obvious from above.

I get enormous pleasure from the rockery because it is a highly detailed space immediately in front of the house and there are always pockets of seasonal interest within it. Because so much of the planting is bulbs, there is always dying foliage too, but that is just part of the nature of this style.

Yesterday, on a grey day, I looked at some of the views within the rockery and was delighted that it was like an Impressionist meadow, albeit in miniature.

Lessons learned

The stone mill wheel serves as a bird bath and is used often, this time by a tui

Were I starting a new garden from scratch, especially a large garden, I would reduce the number of beds and borders. And I would be more rigorous in separating the highly detailed areas from the broad sweeps of plantings.

Pleione orchids in spring. At this time of the year they are dormant and can be lifted, cleaned up and replanted.

The little mill wheel bed is a highly detailed area

I am perfectly happy doing highly detailed gardening. Micro gardening, I call it. As I lifted and divided big clumps of pleione orchids, I decided it was the gardening equivalent of surgery. But I want my areas of highly detailed gardening limited and confined. We have a large rockery which requires close attention, the sunken garden and the millwheel garden. It was the little millwheel garden that I was going through earlier this week. It is full of seasonal detail like the aforementioned pleiones, blue lachenalias, fritillarias, erythroniums, dactylorhiza orchids and similar tiny treasures along with a few choice shrubs like species camellias and small rhododendrons.

The mistake I made over time was to grab pots of such treasures from the nursery (in the days when we still did the full range for mail order) and tuck them into odd places here and there. Everywhere, really. Now I am trying to reverse that and lifting such little gems to relocate out of mixed borders.

Bolder plantings in bigger sweeps need treasures that are in scale to the other plantings, not small detail.

Away from these highly detailed areas of planting needing close maintenance, I want bigger sweeps of bolder planting. I love how our avenue gardens have shaped up with the bigger sweeps of interesting shade perennials. It is the itsy, bitsy, inbetween stuff that I do not enjoy doing. The mixed border – too often the hodge podge border – has a lot to answer for. We have too many borders and beds like that and they are hard going.

The round garden was a design aberration and has never been successful

Hand-hewn stone artefacts dating back to pioneer forebears

I didn’t just strip out the old rose garden. I am also nearing the end of clearing another design aberration – a round garden in the front lawn which had evolved over time to something less than satisfactory. The defining concrete mowing strip has been removed, as have the bulbs and smaller plants. It is just waiting for Mark to remove the dwarf lollipop camellias and the Graham Thomas rose. All that will remain is the umbrella Magnolia laevifolia in the centre and the stone artefacts which are of interest. One is a shaped corner stone which used to be placed to protect the early timber buildings in settler New Plymouth from being raked by passing cart wheels. Another is a small stone trough Mark’s mother collected, hand-shaped of course and the centrepiece is another mill wheel. This wheel is a small inner wheel from a domestic grain mill in the Te Henui stream area in New Plymouth. Mark’s parents gathered these historical pieces back in the 1950s when nobody else valued them and the records have been passed down orally. We don’t do much in the way of ornamentation in our garden but we appreciate our small collection of historic artefacts.

I am also eyeing up another three short lengths of garden border and thinking I may strip out the messy underplanting. There are sufficient shrubs in those borders to carry them without the need for ground cover detail as well. A mulch of leaf litter or compost is all that they need. It is just quite a bit of work to lift everything and reuse the plants and bulbs that are of value. If we gardened less with bulbs it would be easier but our bulbs represent many years of building up large numbers of different types, many rare and curious, and are a feature of our garden.

Not every wall, fence, pathway or building needs an edging border of planting. We had our first visible frost this week – we don’t get too many of these each winter. 

There are several lessons I have learned through all this:

  • Gardens evolve over time and we often don’t step back to look with critical eyes at the current picture. Sometimes, they do just become a mishmash, especially if you are the sort of gardener who tucks plants in to fill spaces. Or they become dominated by thugs which take over and swamp out the more desirable plants.
  • Tiny treasures and small detail need to be accommodated in designated areas where they won’t get overtaken by competitors and where it is easier to carry out the more careful, intensive maintenance that they require.
  • It is still possible to get detail and variety into larger scale plantings but the detail needs to be larger in scale.
  • Not every area needs the oft recommended three layers of planting (ground cover, middle layer and upper canopy or backdrop (recommended, I think, to get the lush, well furnished look).
  • Not every pathway, driveway or building needs a side border to complete it. There can be too many bits and bobsy borders and beds. Fewer may be more effective and certainly makes for easier management.
  • Mixed borders are difficult to manage well in the long term (mixed borders being a mix of woody shrubs, perennials, climbers and sometimes bulbs).
  • Most perennials perform much better if you lift and divide them, replanting them in well-dug soil. Some, like polyanthus and pulmonaria, benefit from lifting and dividing every two or three years in our conditions. Others like hostas, can usually be left for about ten years before they start to go back (by ‘going back’, I mean they can reach a point where they get smaller, not larger).

As I have said before, if there is an area of your garden where you avert your eyes every time you walk by, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. It won’t get better if you ignore it. Sometimes it needs drastic action.

 

Reinterpreting inspiration. The new garden progresses.

The resident cat at Bury Court in 2014. We plan to visit this garden again next month.

I have been planting what I loosely refer to as “my grass garden”. I wrote about this back in February and progress is being made. I have been asked whether this garden has been planned on paper and for a while I felt somewhat shamefaced to admit that it has not. Now I just think experience and instinct will serve me better than a paper plan. Trained garden designers learn to plan on paper and good ones know how to relate open space and proportions to paper measurements. Amateurs do graph paper gardens and then, when religiously followed outside even though proportions don’t translate well, these remain forever looking like graph paper gardens. I have seen this mistake made in other people’s gardens.

This is part of a much larger area that we are gently bringing in to an entirely new garden and Mark did draw up the entire space to get the proportions right for the separate sections. He also staked out the area with bamboo sticks to define the spaces visually before any earth-moving and planting started. The first plants to go in were the structural ones which will give a formal backbone – Fairy Magnolia White in two rows to be pleached in due course, underplanted with Camellia Fairy Blush to be clipped tightly as a hedge. String lines were used to make sure that this formal green structure was straight.

Work starts. A man with a rotary hoe can be a wonderful thing.

My patch is like passage-way to the side of all this, albeit a passage-way in full sun that is about 10 metres wide by 30 metres long; at around 300sqm it is larger than some urban dwellers get in life.  The idea of a “grass garden” has somewhat morphed into “grasses and other plants with long, narrow foliage and spear-shaped foliage”. The plant palette is broadening substantially as I go but still restrained overall, by our standards. “You are not copying the Bury Court garden, are you?” asked friend and colleague, designer Tony Murrell. Well, no.

The grass garden at Bury Court

The hallmark of Bury Court was the sharp edged, geometric design filled with billowing grasses – a signature style of English designer Christopher Bradley-Hole. No hard-edged design in mine. We want even the path to meander informally without sharp definition.

From memory, Bury Court’s garden is fully deciduous in that English and Northern European style. We just don’t do fully deciduous gardens in New Zealand. Our climate is milder but also our native flora is almost 100% evergreen so we think in terms of foliage and flowers all year round. My ratio is probably closer to 60% evergreen and 40% deciduous.

Not exactly Bury Court but planting has started

Bury Court’s garden was, I am guessing, big budget. What we lack in budget, we have, I hope, made up for in sustained thought and discussion over a fairly long period of time, along with the trialling and analysis of most of the plant material. At the back of my mind, I keep repeating some of the points made by Tim Richardson in the book I reviewed recently. “Immersive, not pictorial”, I say to myself. These are not twin herbaceous borders. They are an antipodean interpretation of the New Perennials movement and I chant like a mantra the words ‘rhythm’, ‘drifts’, ‘billowing’, ‘repeats and echoes’. It is a whole new approach to composing with plants for me.

Because we are not buying in the plants but relocating them from other areas in the garden and from small accumulations in the nursery, it is more work digging and dividing than simply knocking out of pots. But I am also starting with larger plants and with the luxury of plenty of plant material. I repeat again, a lot of thought has gone into the plants to be used – a few years of thought and observation.

We have never seen gardening as instant gratification and there is much work to be done in this new area before we are ready to share it in a few – or maybe several – years’ time.

Radio Live has now set up a separate site with Tony Murrell’s Home and Garden Show audio and photos so it is a whole lot easier to find than before. Last Sunday, Tony and I were talking about hybrids and species. Coming up this Sunday, we are discussing cottage gardening. I tell you, I leap down the stairs as my alarm rings 6.23am, make myself a cup of tea and am sitting wide awake and firing on all cylinders for when the phone rings at about 6.32. These are relatively extended discussions we have and it takes quite a bit of combined concentration, especially at that hour of the morning. For me it is a new skill to be focusing my mental energy on a radio discussion rather than on writing – often the ideas are similar but the process and skills in communicating them are very different. It is probably why I have not been writing as much recently.

Finally and entirely unrelated, I give you flowers for no reason except to share the pleasure. It is tree dahlia season again.

A retirement garden from scratch

The garden owners know exactly what they like and how they want their new garden to look

The garden owners know exactly what they like and how they want their new garden to look

Every time I drive to town, I pass a large new garden that was started from scratch late last year. The owners are usually outside, beavering away. Curiosity overcame me and I had to stop and chat.

Ann and Maurice did not want to be identified beyond their christian names and that is fine because what interested me was to find out how they decided where to start with their blank canvas. There was just some perimeter hedging and a new house at one end of the plot when they started. It is a large section – a full acre they told me – and this is their retirement garden.

Both came from larger gardens, considerably larger in their earlier days, so the prospect of an acre held no fears for them, but the fact that it is pretty much dead flat was important. There are good reasons why most people retire to the flat in later years – gardeners’ knees for one.

I asked them how they decided where to start and the response was completely matter of fact and decisive. They wanted a garden that was fully visible from the house. There was to be no slow reveal or secret garden to be discovered. In a modern house designed for indoor-outdoor flow, they wanted to be able to survey their garden in its entirety from the living areas. There is no right or wrong way on this. It is entirely a matter of personal taste and they know what they like. The result is a large expanse of central lawn surrounded by garden borders on the perimeter.

All the garden borders are curved, serpentine even. Ann was equally decisive on this design decision. She does not like straight lines in gardens and regards them as boring. Again this is a matter of personal taste and design choice. There is no correct or incorrect way.

Where their gardening experience showed was in the generous width of the perimeter borders. Irrespective of whether your edgings are railroad straight or gently curving, one of the most common design mistakes is to make borders too narrow. In a large space, narrow borders can look mean, out of proportion to the scale of the garden. But even in a small space, it is very difficult to work with narrow borders. Plants grow – often much larger than expected and few novices can envisage the amount of space trees and shrubs will take up once established.

Scatter pavers in the middle of wide borders to give somewhere to stand when tending to the sections that can't be reached from the side (this one in my garden)

Scatter pavers in the middle of wide borders to give somewhere to stand when tending to the sections that can’t be reached from the side (this one in my garden)

We have been dogged by garden borders that Mark’s parents put in back in the 1950s, which ended up being too narrow. It is not easy to widen borders retrospectively when they have permanent concrete or stone edgings in place. We have done it to several, but getting it right from the start saves bother. Never less than two metres in width would be my rule of thumb, wider where possible. Maybe consider having fewer, wider borders if the amount of garden is scary. Scatter a few pavers in the wider expanse of the border if you don’t want to stand on the soil so that you can tend to the central area that is out of reach.

Ann and Maurice are planning their garden from the start so that they will be able to maintain it as they age. It is, after all, their retirement project. All borders have been edged with a wide concrete mowing strip, hand mixed and poured by Maurice. This gives definition to the borders and makes mowing easy. There are no island beds to circumnavigate. The lawn is uninterrupted. Maurice has given considerable attention to the lawn and they have not shied away from spending money on getting it right from the start. The level is consistent and flush to the mowing strips. It is a large area but dead flat and easy to mow with a ride-on – an important factor in longer term planning.

While the new border plantings include both perennials and annuals, the long term emphasis is on the trees and shrubs. Over time, these will grow and mature, providing a low maintenance backdrop for when hand weeding and kneeling become onerous. “It will be easy,” they explained. “All that will need to be done to keep the place looking good is to mow the lawns.”

Ann and Maurice were keeping their intensively gardened areas close to the house - very close for these areas under cover

Ann and Maurice were keeping their intensively gardened areas close to the house – very close for these areas under cover

Detailed gardens have been kept very close to the house with particular emphasis on the new conservatory which sports a permanent garden.

It is difficult to imagine a time when these two will not be out in their garden. They know what they like, they know what they want and they have made plans for it to see them into the future. No matter whether one’s personal tastes and preferences differ, there is a magnificence in such confident enthusiasm backed up by hard work.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.